By Chris Sommer
Luke and I met in a manner that many climbing partners do these days – through Facebook. My guess is that many adventures have gone awry because of this ease of connection through social media. I’d also guess that many fantastic climbing partner relationships have been born in the same manner. We’re all stoked to get out there and what better way to find partners than a place that instantly connects you to thousands of like-minded people.
It was mid-June of 2018 and I was finishing my study abroad at the University of Auckland. I had set myself up for 3 weeks of winter climbing on the South Island following finals, beginning with a week in Queenstown. I didn’t really know anyone in Queenstown, so I did what most people from my generation do – I turned to Facebook. I was warmly welcomed by the online Queenstown climbing community. It turns out there was a great number of people who were also interested in getting after it! After screening through some people, I messaged Luke and he was game for an alpine adventure. We settled on staying in touch, watching the weather, and learning the beta for Friday’s Fool – a 200 meter mixed and ice route at the heart of the Remarkables range.
I met Luke on Friday, June 28th, at The North Face store in Queenstown. He was a manager there and was working the evening shift. I distinctly remember his rosy cheeks and warm, inviting personality. I had nowhere to stay In Queenstown and was planning on bivying in the woods (I know, I’m part of the problem!), but Luke promptly invited me to crash at his cabin, which I would graciously do for several weeks while on the South Island. Luke had off from work on the weekend and the weather was looking good, so we planned for a go at Friday’s Fool on Sunday. I had never done a route like this before and neither had Luke, so we were sure to be in for an adventure no matter what.
We woke up around 5am. Luke’s cabin was cold. I had spent the previous two days ice climbing in the Remarkables and Luke and I both had a few too many drinks at the Coronet opening day party the night before. Needless to say it was a challenging start! A cup of coffee and some breakfast later and we were driving up the winding road to The Remarkables Ski Area parking lot. We quickly divvied up gear, packed our bags, and began the quick, though annoying, hike up the ski hill. Luke knew some folks who worked for the ski area and at the top of Shadow Basin Lift we were able to stash some gear, food, and water in the lift house. Our goal was to go light and fast for this climb. This was also when we decided to put on crampons. Luke pulled out his new-to-him pair of old monopoints. I had never seen a pair of crampons so dull! “Forgot to sharpen them before this trip… oh well”, Luke replied to my initial concerns. ‘Well they should work fine’, I thought, ‘it’s mostly a mixed route through a snow gulley anyhow.’
After a quick coffee and water chug and a snack, we left the ski area boundary and started walking across the Queens Drive. In the summer the Queens Drive is a ledge system that runs along the west side of Telecom Tower. In the winter, however, it is a sometimes steeply-angled series of debris cones from the various gullies that come down from the Telecom Tower ridgeline above. Below, the ramp drops off into what looks and feels like thousands of meters of cliffs all the way to Jack’s Point and Lake Wakatipu. We did not know the exact state of avalanche conditions on that day so we decided to rope up and simul-climb through the Queens Drive to be safe. The snow felt unstable and steep, so I was glad to have a piece of gear or two in the wall between Luke and me. In between times of focusing on what I was doing I’d pause and look out of the valley below. The weather was amazing – partly sunny but cold – and my heart was filled with joy at the route we were attempting and the new friendship I could feel looming. The Remarkables are a very aptly named mountain range for this felt like an alpine dream.
After some time we found ourselves at the base of the route. I agreed that I would take the first pitch – the crux ice section for the route.
I looked up and my stomach sank. I had never climbed something so thin and technical. By all accounts and trip reports that we read, though, the route looked to be in good shape. I tried to appear brave as I took the rack, ate a snack, and set off into new territory. In hindsight, we both had a bit of hubris that day. Our macho climbing facades would soon give way to fear, we later learned.
Our rack consisted of five ice screws, a handful of cams and nuts, and a few pitons and I was sure glad to have all of it on that first pitch. Stemming through the crux bulge – my right foot on a little rock chip and my left in some good ice – I went to make a slightly desperate move to get over the hump. Something tugged at my harness, though, and I looked down to realise one of my ice tool’s leash was caught under the draw of the last cam I placed, a rooky mistake made in a moment of inattention!
My heart started racing and my forearms started to pump. ‘It’s ok, just breathe, Chris’, I told myself. The number two cam was at my feet and I dare not reach down to unclip it from the rope and risk and potentially huge fall. So, I calmly sunk my other tool into some good ice, tried to relax my right hand that was holding on, and dropped my left leashed tool so that it would untangle itself from the draw. I then pulled on the leash and retrieved the now-free tool and continued climbing through the crux. I was relieved to find the low-angle snow gulley that led to the bottom of the next ice pitch. I did not, however, read the route beta carefully enough as I climbed right past a brand new set of bolts and chains until I ran out of rope. I looked around and found nothing but chossy rock and unconsolidated snow – I was out of options and eating up precious time.
A couple of hammer hits later and I had a two piton anchor from which to belay Luke. This was the first time I had ever placed pitons and I stared at them the entire time I belayed Luke, just to make sure they didn’t move a millimeter. With Luke standing next to me again, I was relieved that he would take the sharp end for the next pitch.
The rest of the route went fairly smoothly. We swung leads and climbed well. On the second to last pitch I made it up to an icy choke and decided it would be a good place to build a screw anchor. Luke made his way to me and we discussed exit strategy. The route took a dog-leg turn to the left about 15 meters above us and beyond that was the finish line. We were under the assumption that the real climbing was over and that it was a simple snow gulley to the top with some ice here and there. As such, Luke decided to only take the screws and to leave me with the rest of the rack. I even gave him one of my anchor screws leaving me with one from which to belay. Luke started up the final pitch, He placed a screw three meters above me and another one five meters above that. He then turned the corner and was gone – out of sight and sound for a long time. I sat there looking out over the valley, quietly feeding out rope, and thinking about what a great day it has been so far. I was overwhelmed with the thought of actually completing this fabled route soon.
The weather was actively deteriorating in front of our eyes. Clouds rolled in quickly and I was glad that we were on the final pitch. The rope on my lap began to dwindle and I began wondering if Luke was close to the top. It stopped moving for a couple of minutes and I began to feel the frustration every climbing partner has felt at times. ‘Why isn’t he moving’ I thought. It turns out he was contemplating. I heard a faint voice from above. We began trying to communicate with a series of lung-busting yells back and forth. After a few minutes of this I discovered that Luke had hit a section of steep mixed climbing before the top-out. He began climbing it and realised it was above his skill-level (and mine) without any rock gear, which was all on my harness. I could think of only one solution that would ensure our safe return – Luke needed to downclimb back to me, grab the rock gear, and re-climb the pitch. He agreed and began the frustrating process.
I started taking in slack when out of nowhere the rope began rapidly coiling back into my lap. My mind raced and I immediately knew we were both dead. Time seemed to slow down and I was able to play out the entire scenario in my head, the scenario that was about to unfold. Luke fell and was tumbling his way back to me. He would fall past me and to the end of the rope. The force of his fall would then pull out the three ice screws set in aerated ice that we had between us and rip me from my belay. I knew what that would feel like. A quick tug that I would be powerless against. We would tumble all the way to Jack’s Point and search and rescue would not even know where to begin looking for our bodies. I was already dead in my mind and I just hoped it would happen quickly – that I wouldn’t feel any pain in the fall.
It was at this point in my thought process that something wild happened. I will never forget the sight of the end of the rope flying past me without Luke attached. The image is stuck in my memory – the tip of the rope frozen against the sky as it whizzed past my face. My initial thought was, ‘I’m alive!’ I was overwhelmed with the joy of not tumbling to my death. My next thought was, ‘what the fuck just happened?’ I gathered my emotions and called up to Luke. He responded with two simple words, “Rope cut!” I pulled up the end of the rope and sure enough a clean slice had severed our single blue rope rendering it useless to the now-stranded Luke above.
It was about 3:30 pm. It was going to get dark around 4:30. It began snowing heavily. We were up an alpine route without a rope and instincts kicked in. I instructed Luke to stay put where he was. I would later learn that he was standing in a less-than-vertical corner – his feet stemmed on some little ledges and his tools hooked on some rock above. He was safe, but powerless to do much of anything unfortunately, and his calves were about to start feeling the burn. He had no protection for himself as the rock gear was still on my harness. He agreed to stay put while I went to work figuring out our next moves.
My first goal was to get myself safe. I belayed myself up, using the rope that was now doubled over through Luke’s last screw placement, to some good ice where I was able to retrieve Luke’s lowest-placed screw and build a proper two-screw anchor. I then grabbed my phone from my pack. I had twelve percent battery and Luke did not bring his phone so conservation became key. Being an exchange student without a New Zealand SIM card, I was under the impression that I could not call anyone. So, I did what any millennial might do next and turned to Facebook messenger for help. Fortunately there was good service on the side of Telecom Tower and I was able to relay the necessary information to my girlfriend, Annabel, and another friend, Dan, who went to work reaching out to Search and Rescue.
Dan, a Kiwi, then told me that even without an NZ sim card I should be able to call 111 for the police. I did just that and got through to the operator. I explained the situation and our location to which she responded, “so let me get this straight, you and a friend were hiking in the snow?” I almost lost it, but was able to calm down and ask her to transfer me to the police. She did and I was able to explain the situation again to some people higher up. I was then instructed to hang up and wait for a response. I did and immediately put my phone in a warm pocket. I was down to six percent battery.
I waited for about 15 minutes before receiving confirmation that The Remarkables Ski Area Patrol were on route to rescue us. I relayed this information to Luke. My adrenaline slowly faded and the cold took over. I sat back in my harness, pressed my knees against the ice in front of me, dawned my puffy jacket, and waited in dark silence. Luke and I didn’t communicate during this time. It was too much effort to try to yell back and forth. The fear I felt was replaced by contemplation. ‘How did this happen? How did the rope get cut? Was it a crampon kick? A sharp piece of ice or a shard of rock?’ I faded in and out of thought. ‘Why didn’t Luke take the rock gear with him? Why had we both relaxed into a place of comfort before the route was finished?’ My inquiries grew darker, ‘Why did I think we could do this route? Why did I decide to come to Queenstown in the first place? I should quit this type of climbing altogether.’
Answers did not come as easily as questions. It is during trying times such as these that we often resort to picking apart what went wrong without being able to offer any real solutions. These are the darkest, coldest times of self-contemplation. My feelings of negativity were exacerbated by the icy wind whipping and the cold snow collecting on my back. I was cold and scared, but at least I was on an anchor. Luke’s situation, though I can’t speak for how he felt, was objectively more challenging than mine. He had nothing but the crampons on his feet and the tools in his hands to keep himself on the wall.
Hours felt like days as we waited in silence. My eyes were closed for most of our time in waiting. There was no reason to leave them open as it was just as dark. Sometimes I thought I heard voices above only to realise it was just Luke singing softly. But then, ‘What was that?’ I thought. A flicker of light flashed against the gulley wall. A couple minutes later and a ski patroller was standing next to me, handing me the end of a rope to tie into. I did and was soon topping out on Telecom Tower. After climbing through the final mixed portion, which turned out to be the crux of the route, I can affirm that Luke should not have climbed through it unprotected and our decisions made earlier in the day were sound.
Joy overcame me as I stood up on solid snow. I hugged Luke, thankful that we were okay and that he was the person with me during this ordeal. It had taken ski patrol only four hours from the time I called 111 to our rescue. They were experienced climbers and calculated rescuers and I cannot be more grateful for the speedy retrieval they performed that night. After recovering our stashed gear from the shadow basin lift house, we were treated to a snow-cat ride down to the patrol building at the base. We walked in the door, were handed a beer and some blankets, and were asked to tell our story to the sheriff who had just arrived. The patrollers were so nonchalant about the whole affair that you would think that they perform rescues like this regularly. They deflected every word of gratitude with a casual, “no worries,” or “just doing our jobs.” My advice to everyone is that whenever you meet a search and rescuer or a ski patroller, please thank them for the work they do. Without them I don’t know how Luke and I would have fared in our situation.
We still have no idea to this day how the rope was cut. Upon further examination we found a clean slice – cleaner than I think I could do with a sharp knife. Luke’s crampons were horrendously dull and the rope was cut a good 15 feet behind him, so we ruled out that possibility very quickly. Could it have been a rock or a piece of ice? The rope would have had to have been sitting on a razor-blade sharp rock and another rock would have to land perfectly on top of it for this to happen. I suppose this scenario is not out of the question and it is what we have since defaulted to as the solution. As for me, however, I’m just not so sure. We may never really know what caused our rope to cut that day, but it sure did make for an adventurous finish to an adventurous day in the mountains.
After a lot of contemplation over the events that led up to the cut rope and the ones that transpired after, I think that we did everything we could have given the circumstances. We tried to make the safe decision of having Luke downclimb to retrieve the rock gear. We did make the safe decision of forgetting about our pride and calling for help. We did not try to perform some risky self-rescue that we didn’t know how to do and put ourselves into a worse situation when help was available. I think that everything happens for a reason and some days you just get unlucky. I know one thing for sure, though, I am a big advocate for double ropes now. But what was it that cut our rope? That question will live on in my head forever. It was the cheeky keas that cut it, I reckon.